Dial Up: Virtual Conferences & Digital Feminisms
Jade French catches up with Charlotte Mathieson of the Feminist & Women's Studies Association of UK and Ireland (or FWSA for short!) on their upcoming virtual conference, held in solidarity with academics affected by international mobility restrictions...
How can the academic conference space adapt to a fully digital world? Researchers are more connected than ever before. But does networking take on different contexts when a plethora of voices emerge in the digital space? Blogs, video presentation, live streaming, online gaming and social media all become legitimate ways of disseminating information in this space. The digital conference can offer new perspectives on sharing research and bringing together intersectional voices...
Hello Charlotte, first of all, could you tell us a little about yourself and what you do? How did you get involved in organising the FWSA Virtual Conference?
I’ve been organising the virtual conference along with a working group of FWSA executive committee members, as I’m currently the chair of the Association. The idea for doing something to support feminist scholars impacted by international mobility restrictions was first proposed by one of our members in the wake of the travel restrictions imposed by the United States earlier this year.
We were aware that feminist academics were impacted, either directly or through boycotting US conferences in solidarity. We had some discussion among the committee as to how we could support those scholars to present their work, and in a way that was as inclusive as possible. An online conference seemed like a good solution to this, and so we decided to trial this alongside our biennial conference in September.
As the conference has developed we have expanded the initial call for papers to now include scholars whose mobility is impacted by a range of issues – people who are unable to travel due to lack of financial resources or job precarity, for example, as well as caring responsibilities, and disability or illness.
What does a virtual conference entail?
The conference will be hosted on our website for the first two weeks of September, and during that time we’ll be posting up the work that has been submitted. We’re inviting presenters to submit in whatever format they prefer – it can be a blog post, a video presentation or short film, or an audio-slideshow, whatever works best for them. Viewers will be able to comment on the posts, so we can encourage the dialogue that a physical conference generates, and we’ll also be using our social media platforms (Twitter and Facebook) to share the discussion.
After the conference we’ll continue to host the presentations on the website (except where presenters prefer otherwise) in order to keep the discussions going after the event.
Why is it important?
We feel that this enables feminist academic dialogue in a way that is as inclusive as possible, and that overcomes some of the barriers that traditional conferences present. While physical conferences are an invaluable way to share research, many academics find conference travel prohibitively difficult: the practicalities of attending imposes demands on individuals’ time, finances and mobility, as well as requiring time away from family and caring responsibilities.
By creating an online space that is freely accessible wherever people are in the world, the virtual conference can usefully address some of these issues. While in isolation this is just one event, we hope that organisers of other might also be inspired to run similar events or to do more to incorporate a virtual element in physical conferences - this is certainly becoming more popular, for example in livestreaming talks, or having twitter hashtags for discussion, but there is more scope for broadening and embedding this within traditional conference platforms.
It’s exciting to see the different forms academic research can take – from a video presentation to a blog post – how does this democratise who gets to speak?
By welcoming a range of formats, we’re allowing presenters to participate in the way that best suits both them and their topics. The 20-minute conference presentation has become pretty standard at academic conferences and this certainly has advantages for both organisers and presenters, but not everyone feels comfortable giving presentations and it isn’t always the most suitable format for presenting some research either. The virtual conference can easily accommodate different forms – we don’t have to be as mindful of timing as when creating a conference schedule, or fit around the technology available in different locations, as everything is run from the website. In this way, hopefully researchers can participate in the format that makes the most out of their research rather than constraining it. We can also ensure that accessibility is embedded into the format – for example by accompanying spoken presentations with written transcripts where possible – in order to make the conference accessible to viewers.
You mentioned in the Call for Papers that the digital space allows people worried about travel restrictions – how does the digital space allow for an intersectional/representative feminism?
As an Association our key purpose is to support feminist and women’s studies academics, and within that we maintain a commitment to representing a diverse body of academics across a range of feminist approaches and beliefs. The virtual conference facilitates this in two ways: by removing the barriers to access that are inhibitive to some scholars, and by welcoming presentations from academics working in any area of feminism. We hope also that in highlighting issues of mobility in the call for papers, we encourage participation from scholars who might otherwise be under-represented at traditional conferences, as well as making others more widely aware of the difficulties that in-person conferences can present.
How do you see ‘virtual attendance’ differing from in-person attendance? Will you use metrics to track engagement?
Virtual attendance will have some differences – the conference will run over two weeks, so attendance won’t be as time-specific as a regular conference, and people can be more selective about how many events they attend. We have metrics embedded into our blog so we will be able to track engagement – as it’s our first time running a conference in this way we will be able to see whether people check-in at the times posts go live, or if interaction is more dispersed across the weeks. We’ll also be using our Twitter and Facebook pages to promote the conference and be able to gauge how interest and take-up varies across our different channels.
Charlotte Mathieson is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century English Literature in the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey. She specialises in Victorian literature and culture, and has published on travel and mobility in the mid-nineteenth century novel, focusing on authors including Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte.
She is the Chair of the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association UK & Ireland, co-editor of the series Palgrave Studies in Mobilities, Literature and Culture and currently co-organising the Mobilities, Literature, Culture conference at Lancaster in April 2017.
FWSA VIRTUAL CONFERENCE